The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

February 28, 2013

It’s germ warfare, and we’re losing

By Jeff Mullin, columnist
Enid News and Eagle

ENID, Okla. — Editor’s note: This column was first published March 3, 2004.

We haven’t got a chance.

We are surrounded.

Every time we take a breath, use the phone or eat anything, we’re taking a chance.

Not a riding in a car with your 16-year-old daughter or choosing a black diamond ski run after only one lesson kind of a chance, but a chance, nonetheless.

We live, you see, in a dirty world, Janet Jackson, Howard Stern and cable TV notwithstanding. I’m talking about germs. They are everywhere.

A study by researchers from the University of Arizona found the average office desk to contain more disease-causing bacteria than the average office toilet seat, some 400 times more, in fact.

The average office desktop contains 20,961 germs per square inch, according to the Arizona scientists, while the average office toilet seat has only 49 bugs per square inch.

That makes sense. After all, who wants to live on a toilet seat?

That means you’re better off eating lunch in the bathroom than at your desk.

Well, maybe in the ladies’ room.

Actually, eating lunch at our desks is the reason they are so germ-infested. The more we eat at our desks, the more food residue we leave behind. That turns our desks into virtual petri dishes full of noxious beasties.

“For bacteria, a desk is really the lap of luxury,” microbiologist Dr. Charles Gerba said. “They can feast all day from breakfast to lunch and even dinner.”

The dirtiest office item, the researchers found, is an office telephone, containing 25,127 germs per square inch. Computer keyboards contain 3,295 germs per square inch, while a computer mouse has 1,676.

Even office fax machines have bacteria levels some three times higher than the average bathroom door.

Gerba and his team of researchers reached these conclusions by using state-of-the-art technology, including something called an ultraviolet “germ meter.”

They collected 7,000 samples from offices in New York San Francisco, Tampa and Tucson.

The scientists recommend scrubbing your desk daily with a disinfectant wipe.

That, they say, should reduce bacteria levels by some 99 percent.

It’s been so long since I’ve cleaned my desk, I’m surprised it doesn’t collapse under the weight of all the germs.

Occasionally I’ll step away from my desk and, when I get back, something will have been moved. I think it’s a little microbe humor.

And germs are nothing to sneeze at. Well, actually, they are, since they are responsible for ailments ranging from the common cold on up to some much nastier conditions. In fact, a recent study called the “Unexplained Deaths Project,” found some of the deaths were caused by bacteria and viruses.

The study probed the deaths of 227 children and adults from 1995 to 2003. A specific cause of death was found in only 53 of the cases.

More than half of those were found to be caused by bacteria that could have been treated with medicines.

And now another study tells us the anti-bacterial soaps we have come to rely on don’t really do any good.

Researchers at Columbia University gave anti-bacterial cleaning products to 120 families in New York City.

After a year, it was determined these families experienced about the same number of colds as another group using regular soaps and detergents.

And the bugs are getting stronger. Our penchant for taking antibiotics every time we get a cold is making for super-germs that are becoming resistant to ordinary drugs.

So what are we to do? Wash your hands, for one thing, with regular soap and water. And don’t just give them a quick rub and a rinse, but really scrub them.

Doctors recommend washing your hands for the length of time it takes to sing “Happy Birthday,” twice. Just a word of advice, prepared to get some strange looks if you sing out loud in a public restroom. As for me, I think I need a shower. Hey, I think my phone just moved.

Mullin is senior writer of the News & Eagle. Email him at